Wow, who remembers the last time Saturday Night Live was so politically relevant? On Tuesday Hillary Clinton drew attention to SNL’s debate skit from last weekend, which highlighted the media’s pro-Obama bias, and now the show’s choice of Fred Armisen as their Fauxbama is creating a debate over race in television. Critics contend that it’s inappropriate and shameful that SNL couldn’t find a black comedian to play Obama (Armisen is of Venezuelan, Japanese, and German descent). Hannah Pool at the Guardian compared Armisen’s light makeup to blackface, and Maureen Ryan at the Chicago Tribune wrote that SNL’s failure to choose a black person for the role shows it has failed to keep pace with the rest of the nation’s progress on race relations.
The Washington Post helpfully points out that white cast members have portrayed black celebrities in the past and that nobody complained: Darrell Hammond repeatedly played Jesse Jackson, and Billy Crystal took a turn as Sammy Davis Jr. In one respect the critics are right: There must be someone out there who is black and could impersonate Obama. But isn’t it a step backward to say that only a black person could successfully impersonate another black person? As if the gulf between the races is so vast that skin color trumps speech and gestures — which are after all what impersonation is about? And remember Ben Kingsley, who won an Academy Award for his portrayal of Gandhi (in dark makeup)? We all thought he did a pretty good job, and he was from a mixed background, like Armisen. And in fact, like Barack Obama. —Dan Amira